Hollywood Retro Film Festival – Casablanca

Take a trip to smoky gin joints and sun-drenched flea markets in Casablanca, a timeless classic that transcended the 1940’s Hollywood studio system to resonate just as strongly to this day.

Rhys Graeme-Drury

Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve probably heard a dozen films repeat that line – “Here’s looking at you kid”. Or some variations on the oft misquoted “play it, Sam”. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca is a milestone in cinema history, and not just because of its legendary screenplay.

The remarkable thing about Casablanca’s popularity is that the film itself came from fairly unassuming beginnings. At the time, the general consensus on set was that Casablanca was just one production on a conveyor belt that churned out release after release during the 1940’s Hollywood studio system.

They may’ve assembled an A-list cast (Bogart, Bergman, Paul Henreid), but Warner Brothers hadn’t earmarked the film as an instant hit or a lasting memory. With its release cleverly moved forward several weeks to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa, Casablanca soon gathered steam with audiences who yearned for a sweeping romance yarn from a far off land. In fact, the New York Times remarked in their review that the film was a mix of “taut melodrama and bristling intrigue [where] the result is a highly entertaining and even inspiring film.” Eight Academy Award nominations later (three wins, including Best Picture) and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s mark on cinema history well and truly made, Casablanca is a film that has gone down as one of Hollywood’s finest – and viewed today, it’s easy to see why.

The screenplay simply doesn’t have a word out of place, with each scene and exchange feeling crisp and taut. Bogart and Bergman are instantly transformed into a defining Hollywood couple, and the bittersweet ending is really satisfying; we feel for the characters, but we’re not overcome with schmaltz. It’s a tight screenplay that to this date remains endlessly quotable – we all know the famous collective of catchphrases that are bandied around like nobodies business, but I’ve always appreciated the ceaseless snark that Rick bitterly spits out in between sips of whisky; “You despise me, don’t you?” questions Ugarte (Peter Lorre) in one scene. “If I gave you any thought I probably would,” comes the biting reply from Bogart, whose smirk is simply nowhere to be found. Even staring down the barrel of a gun, Captain Renault (Claude Rains) is able to sneak in a little sass – “And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart” warns Rick in the final act. “That is my least vulnerable spot” is the Captain’s smart retort.

Contrary to the common misconception that Ronald Reagan was the first choice, Bogart, who prior to Casablanca was best known for playing smooth-talking detectives (The Maltese Falcon) and criminals (High Sierra), had the role of Rick written for him especially. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Bogie playing Rick. The chain-smoking American bar owner whose neutrality towards the war makes him both an ally and a pest for the local French authorities and their Nazi allies is one of his career defining roles. He’s a man whose life motto is “I stick my neck out for nobody”, and even though he reveals himself to be the sentimental type after all, his frequent wisecracks and hard drinking give him a bristly nature that distances him from his customers and acquaintances.

So what is it about Casablanca that has such staying power after all this time? Is it the simple yet effective story, the broad yet instantly recognisable characters or the exotic period setting that is adorned with notions of extravagance, danger and romance? Maybe it’s the fact that, in a cinematic landscape dominated by big-budget blockbusters filled with CGI, Casablanca is an enduring throwback to an era when real actors worked on real sets with real props and sat at real tables smoking real cigarettes. For lovers of classic cinema, Casablanca is a staple that holds its own to this day, and for those just starting out on their journey into the depths of Hollywood’s Golden Era, this timeless piece may just mark the “beginning of a beautiful friendship”.

Casablanca screens at Windsor Cinema, Nedlands 28 Nov & 6 Dec

Images courtesy of Chapel Distribution & Warner Bros

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